The sector’s not-so-secret secret, however, is that users often abandon the devices about as fast as a New Year’s resolution. As with calorie counting and morning jogs, people simply fall out of the habit of wearing, charging and using the trackers. In other words, notwithstanding the grand promise of the quantified self, raw data about hours slept, steps taken and calories burned doesn’t automatically translate into healthier lifestyles.
But one new company, coming out of stealth mode with the publication of this story and an announcement on Wednesday, believes it has figured out a way to fix that. GOQii (pronounced Go-Key) is coupling a wristband with human coaches, who can help users stay motivated by analyzing their fitness data, helping them set goals and offering advice.
“This is where wearable technology meets the world’s best experts and coaches, who together are trying to help you make a shift in lifestyle,” said Vishal Gondal, founder and chief executive of GOQii. He previously founded IndiaGames, one of that nation’s largest online gaming developers, which Disney acquired in 2011 for as much as $100 million.
The smart-looking wristband itself is free, but the service will initially cost $99 for six months or $179 for a year. The price covers daily real-time chats with coaches through the GOQii app as well as one check-in phone call a month. The coaches, who are professional fitness trainers, can also remotely vibrate the wristband as a kind of virtual pat on the back.
GOQii, based in Menlo Park, Calif., with offices in Mumbai, is launching a pilot program with 1,000 people in the days ahead to work out the kinks. By the end of the year, it plans to roll out the service in the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
The company has raised several million dollars from angel investors, including Google Senior Vice President Amit Singhal, Flextronics CEO Mike McNamara, Seagate CEO Steve Luczo, EDventure’s Esther Dyson and Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit-Nene, among others.
So what’s the problem with health trackers to date?
Data alone doesn’t suffice. Gondal believes users don’t really know what to do with the information. After all, how many steps is the right number of steps? How many hours of sleep is adequate? What’s the right pulse rate? And what kind of progress should users aim for over time?
These are the things that trainers can help answer, providing context that makes the data useful, he said.
Gondal added that real human beings are harder to ignore than digital reminders or gamification methods aimed at keeping people engaged, like social group leaderboards. In fact, the more incredulous gaming experts say these kinds of virtual competitions often become demoralizing over time, particularly for those who never come out on top (as I wrote about in the past).
GOQii has replaced leaderboards with a different mechanism for motivation, which they’re calling “karma.” The more activity users do, the more karma points they earn. In turn, they’ll be able to donate those points to a charity of their choice, with third parties kicking in matching dollars. Their initial nonprofit partner is the anti-poverty group Oxfam International, but they expect to line up additional ones soon.
Google’s Singhal, who has known Gondal for years, said this is his first angel investment. (He made the investment personally, not through the search giant.)
He said the hardware capabilities of fitness trackers are becoming standardized if not commoditized, much as with smartphones.
“The distinction comes in the service, what those devices can actually do for you,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone else in the market who was doing this.”
Singhal himself has worn a Fitbit on and off for years but, as if to make Gondal’s point, he often finds it sits in the charger for days.
A recent NPD Group survey found that one in three consumers said they’re likely to buy some type of wearable technology, whether smart glasses, watches or fitness trackers. Counting calories and steps were the two most desired features.
The firm estimates the digital fitness category has grown to a more than $330 million market.
But whether GOQii has zeroed in on the best way to stand out in the crowded space, where the Fitbit and Nike FuelBand reign supreme, remains to be seen. Replacing algorithms with trained humans obviously adds costs and scalability challenges that other health tracker companies don’t face.
Meanwhile, some believe the fitness band and smartwatch space is flawed in more fundamental ways, noting health data provided by devices on the wrist can be both limited and suspect.
Dr. Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a neuroscientist focused on sleep disorders at West Virginia University, published a study in 2012 that found the Fitbit and another device known as an actimetry sensor “consistently misidentify wake as sleep and thus overestimate both sleep time and quality.”
Other medical experts will tell you that the pulse rate detected from the wrist reveals far less about a person’s health than an electrocardiogram test (popularly known as an EKG), which can only be measured along the thorax or chest.
Other companies are taking different approaches to wearables, like OMsignal of Montreal. The startup has developed a smart undershirt embedded with sensors that can measure the electrical activity of the heart, breathing rate and stress level as well as steps and calories. It plans to begin shipping its shirt line this summer.
When it comes to sensors, “you want to be closer to the action,” said Stephane Marceau, co-founder & CEO of OMsignal. “Not every signal is created equal.”
Of course, there’s another way to read those NPD survey results: Two-thirds of people don’t intend to buy wearables.
Many consumers simply don’t believe they need a device to tell them they exercised — they were there, after all. And a lot of people don’t particularly want to think about their health all the time.
“I don’t need a watch that measures my pulse and oxygen saturation,” Dennis Goldstein of Oakland, Calif., announced at a coffee shop as I was writing this story. “Why do I need that?”
When I walked up to ask if I could quote him, he said yes and added: “But I do need a watch that will allow me to see and talk to my grandchildren. That’s what Dick Tracy was all about.”